Brussels, 24 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - What is the European Union's biggest problem today?
Judging by the attention given the 'euro' by much of the EU's media, it's the planned launching of a common currency in 15 months. But judging by the views of a growing number of analysts --and EU officials and diplomats who request anonymity-- the chief problem is not the euro at all, but rather the Union's promised enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe.
They say the EU's 15 members today are totally at odds on how to go about taking in 10 candidate states from the region. They reason that, once the euro is introduced at the start of 1999 --and perhaps even before-- basic differences among members will erupt in a paralyzing crisis. Some even say the crisis could turn out to be the most serious in the EU's four-decade-old history.
The evidence cited of deep disagreements within the EU over enlargement is both old and new. At their Amsterdam summit three months ago, the 15 came nowhere close to achieving consensus on the fundamental reforms necessary, all agreed, for an expansion to almost twice the EU's present size.
Proposed changes in the size of the EU's Executive Commission and in the extension of majority voting were simply deferred for years to come. Other needed reforms --like overhauling the EU's expensive subsidies to farmers and its support programs to poorer members-- were deemed so difficult they were not even put on Amsterdam's agenda.
More recently, the EU's foreign and finance ministers have directly addressed both the issues of reforms and of enlargement. But their meetings 10 days ago in Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU presidency, failed to achieve any progress in either area. Instead, they revealed even deeper divisions on enlargement among the 15 than were evident before. One German commentator, "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" foreign editor Josef Joffe, said that the ministers' disputes over how enlargement might be financed testified to what he called "a strange split" within the EU.
Joffe and other analysts saw on one side Germany, the EU's biggest net contributor, favoring only "a small enlargement." That would take in, say, only the Czechs, the Hungarians and the Poles --the same three nations due to enter NATO first-- so as to keep the cost, especially the cost of farm subsidies, to a minimum.
In another camp were the EU's poorer members, led by Spain and Greece, which would clearly prefer to see no new members from Eastern Europe because they are afraid of losing their own extensive subsidies.
Finally, these analysts said, there were Belgium, France and Italy, which took an entirely different approach. They argued in a joint statement that the EU must reform itself before undertaking expansion. The Belgians even threatened to hold the EU to ransom --if no reform, then no enlargement, a linkage that seemed clearly aimed at postponing decisions on expansion indefinitely.
Behind these divisions, other analysts point out, lie important conflicting conceptions of the nature of an enlarged Union held by France and Germany --and by their respective EU allies. Historically, the two countries' close cooperation has constituted the bloc's integration motor. But in recent years, the Franco-German motor has stalled because, in the post-cold war era, each has a different vision of the EU's future course.
Writing in the influential French weekly "Nouvel Observateur" this week, managing editor Bernard Guetta spelled out the two nations' views this way: The French, he said, want the EU to become --in President Jacques Chirac's phrase-- a "political world power," allied to the U.S. but capable of competing with it on the international scene. In that kind of Union, independence-minded France would, in Guetta's words, "find again in the EU the power it no longer has and cannot have by acting alone."
Germany, on the other hand, rejects the notion of "a European world power," preferring the EU to become simply a "pan-European economic area." That economically integrated area, Guetta wrote, would "be sufficiently large and loose for Germany to be able to affirm the centrality it has rediscovered since the fall of the Berlin Wall."
Guetta and others conclude that for Germany, and for the majority of EU members allied with it, the top priority is logically the enlargement of the Union to the markets of Central Europe. For France, in contrast, the top priority is the deepening of unity among the 15 and the reinforcement of their institutional links. Enlargement, in Paris' view, can wait until further internal integration makes the Union a viable world entity in the 21st century. That idea is shared by Belgium, Italy and, to a lesser extent, by Spain.
The analysts and officials who hold these views acknowledge their projections and analyses seem a bit abstract today. But, they say emphatically, the abstractions will turn into concrete realities within 12 to 18 months.
By that time, they note, the introduction of a single currency will have created a Union capable of deciding its own future --or, they add, incapable of so doing. They are not certain which way the EU will tip, but they are sure the battle to decide that question will be tough --so tough that several of them speak of the "coming crisis in the EU" as a foregone conclusion. And none of them believe that the crisis will speed up or facilitate the eventual entry into the EU of the 10 Eastern candidates.